Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion (Updated)

(Source: Mental Poo; reproduced with permission)

A receipt from a recent visit by blogger My Jihae to an upscale restaurant in Seoul, about which she wrote:

I’m not sure how many restaurants do this, and why this restaurant bothers to do this in the first place, but on the top of the receipt they blatantly keep track of whether the guests are locals or foreigners. They pegged me right away, I guess it’s that obvious.

For those of you that can’t read Korean, for now let’s say that waegookin (외국인) on the right generally means a foreigner, and naegookin (내국인) on the left a Korean person. And that does indeed describe My Jihae and her dining partner respectively, although she is actually Korean-American. But why bother to note the distinction between two ethnically-identical customers at the same table?

Some commenters to her post speculate that it may have been done for taxation purposes, which I wrote would be something good to know if true, as otherwise:

…many expats (myself included) may simply chalk things like this up to Koreans typically and completely unnecessarily pointing out our foreignness, when in fact they may be nothing of the sort.

And see Occidentalism here and here for a similar case in Japan. Unfortunately however, not all perceived Korean tendencies towards exclusion are simply misunderstandings on the part of non-Koreans.

Take the “Waegookin Shock Meltdown” for instance, which describes the situation:

…where when speaking in Korean, Koreans freeze up because they have some silly preconceptions that foreigners simply ‘can’t’ speak Korean or that they just ‘shouldn’t’ speak to us in Korean – the latter which comes without the help of the government and medias insistence in the last 10 years or so that ‘globalization’ means that Koreans should all have to speak English whenever they encounter big-nosed white people.

Foreigners Gangnam Style(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

And which personally used to get me extremely frustrated and angry while learning Korean a few years ago, although now I believe that that reaction from Koreans more often stems from simple inexperience and/or nervousness in dealing with non-Koreans. Still, whatever combination of factors are responsible in any given case, all have clear solutions, something which can not be so easily said of the ways in which Korean notions of nationalism, citizenship, and even the Korean language itself arguably inherently exclude others. Focusing on the latter in this post, I identify 2 main ways in which it does so:

First, because Koreans might take a vacation to New Zealand, say, and describe New Zealanders as waegookin while they’re there, so clearly “foreigner” doesn’t quite cut it as a translation. Perhaps “non-ethnic Korean” would be more suitable? But then what about about My Jihae back in the restaurant?

Given such confusion, then as you might expect the question of the most appropriate English term has already attracted a great deal of attention from many generations of expats, and so if you can forgive my heemanggomoon (희망고문; literally “hope-torture” or “stringing someone along”, and one of my favorite Korean words), I’ve decided that it would be unhelpful to repeat any of that here. Instead, let me refer you to this excellent post by regular commenter Seamus Walsh for the most recent and comprehensive discussion of this aspect of the language issue (but this and this post by others are also helpful), only passing on myself what I wrote in my own post on it 2 years ago:

It may not sound like much, but like I said in this forum, Korea’s (and Japan’s) bloodline-based notions of nationalism and citizenship emphasize and exaggerate the differences between natives and non-natives to an extent rarely found elsewhere in the world, and the constant reminders of these quickly become wearisome to anyone who’s spent even just a few months living here, let alone 8 years. And ironically, constantly hearing the term waegookin in our daily lives probably means that we come to adopt some of the same notions of division and distance ourselves too, and the effect snowballs.

Naturally, Seamus also covers the the second reason in that post, the fact that Koreans never say “my home”, “my wife”, “my language”, or “my country” for instance, but say “our” (우리) instead. And that I can add something useful to here, as by coincidence there was recently a lively discussion on that very topic on the email-based Korean Studies Internet Discussion List, prompted by the following question by William Pore of Pusan National University (source, right: Asadal Thought):

Dear List:

For any comparative Asian linguists, Ural Altaic linguists (?), or, maybe even Korean linguists on the list, I would like to inquire if a pronoun similar to the Korean we (i.e. ‘uri’) occurs with the same frequency/prominence in any related languages to the same degree that it does in Korean. Should we accept the assertion that I nearly always have had that the prominence of that pronoun in Korean is due to a particular Korean mindset alone?

And rather than have you scroll through the full June archive yourself, my contribution is in presenting a truncated and much(!) more readable version of the most pertinent comments instead. Starting with JMF’s reply then:

Perhaps this is not directly related, but I witnessed some very interesting aspects of “uri” while raising my daughter in Korea. Not only my daugher but all of her “pure Korean” friends as well naturally used the words “I/my” almost exclusively. I saw and heard all of them say in Korean “my house,” my school,” “my Mommy/Daddy,” etc. Of course, they were quickly corrected/reprimanded by parents and teachers until they capitulated and began to use “we/our” almost exclusively where they had once felt that “I/my” was more natural. In a word, “uri” is not somehow “organic” to Korean-ness or Korean language but rather externally injected and enforced.

Frank Rudiger, University of Vienna:

And here comes something even less directly related, yet not completely unrelated: In Russian, there is a similar way of saying “we” when actually meaning “I”, for example “me and my mother” would literally be “us with mom” (my s mamoj). In other words, this is not necessarily a purely Korean phenomenon. I guess Russian is not the only example. What about “we won” (wir haben gewonnen) meaning “our team has won” in German (at least)?

(Source: Stinkie Pinkie; CC BY 2.0)

Dr. Balazs Szalontai, Mongolia International University:

In Mongolian language, which has some interesting grammatical similarities with Korean, this practice is carried even further. One would often hear a lady utter the term “manaa nuhur” (our husband), rather than “minii nuhur” (my husband), though she supposedly does not intend to share the said individual with any additional ladies.:)

Alison Tokita, Tokyo Institute of Technology:

I know Japanese much better than I know Korean, but clearly the Korean uri has its equivalent in Japanese language and usage. The Japanese equivalent of uri has indeed been very frequent in recent decades as an aspect of Nihonjinron (theories or discourse of Japanese uniqueness), but is probably declining in the younger generation. The Japanese equivalent actually uses archaic forms of the pronoun. Some examples:

Japan is expressed as not only Nihon, but as waga kuni (our country; cf the softer watashitachi no kuni). The Japanese are not only Nihonjin, but wareware Nihonjin (we Japanese). My or our house can be wagaya (cf watashitachi no uchi).

Then there is the use of koku (country, nation): Japanese literature is koku bungaku (recently the use of Nihon bungaku is starting to replace this); Japanese history is kokushi (now changing to Nihonshi); Japanese (national) language is kokugo: what is taught to Japanese in schools is kokugo and what is taught to non-Japanese is Nihongo.

The use of our and national instead of the country name conveys a somewhat closed country, nationalistic mentality, and as Japan is becoming more internationalized this seems to be going out of favour. These are only my impressions, but others may know of research on this linguistic phenomenon.

Dr. Edward D. Rockstein:

Of course, the usage of koku [a Sino-Japanese loan word] you describe has antecedents in Chinese usages such as  guoyu national language, guoshi national history, guowen national writing system or national literature, ddeung ddeung, nado nado, deng deng.

(Source: Unknown)

And by Owen Miller, with a similar example from England that I was very surprised and happy to see as a former Geordie myself(!), and with most of my extended family still in the region:

I wouldn’t like to step to far into the territory of the linguists on this list but I really wonder whether the case can be made empirically that the pronoun we is more frequent in Korean than in other languages. While I’m sure that John Frankl is right about its enforced use (as a result of ideological norms of national and familial collectivity that probably have relatively recent *historical roots), this doesn’t mean that it isn’t used **frequently** in similar ways in other languages. *

The use of the ‘national we’ is not uncommon in the UK, although perhaps uncommon enough that it makes me wince when I hear it. For example, teaching the First Opium War last year I found myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when the students spontaneously started discussing how terrible it was that ‘we’ had done this bad thing to China.

In certain British English dialects ‘we’ is also very commonly used in the way that Ross King describes above (exclusive first-person plural pronoun) in non-national contexts. For example, the Geordie English pronoun ‘wor’, as in ‘wor lass <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wor_lass>’.

It strikes me that the Korean discourse on the use of ‘uri’ is probably something of a self-reinforcing feedback loop: Encourage the use of a word in official discourse so as to strengthen national collectivity –> discover that word is used frequently –> find that this is evidence of strong national collectivity –> further encourage use of word etc etc.

Finally Jonathan:

Is there evidence of widespread vernacular use of uri prior to the twentieth century? I ask because I wonder if its use was prompted by the Japanese use of ware as in wareware Nihonjin?

And after all that, a clear message that this lingusitic feature of Korean is by no means as unique to Korean as many of us probably thought!


Update 1: As several people have suggested in the comments, and Sara confirmed, the reason that upscale restaurants keep track of non-Koreans is so that they can determine which dishes are the most popular among them, and adjust their menus accordingly. Which is certainly nothing to get upset about, but then wouldn’t actually be all that helpful either, and it would make much more sense to note customers’ nationalities instead (provided staff had the ability to politely ask them).

Regardless however, certainly Koreans in the service industry do frequently unnecessarily keep track of customers which are non-Koreans. As I originally thought Brian in Jeollanam-do‘s receipt on the right was a prime example of for instance, but after reading his explanation:

In my case, I was at a Lotteria (shut up, it’s pretty good) in a Kim’s Club next to my apartment, and the “foreigner” was to help identify who the take-out order went to. Just to preempt any commenters from James’ post, no, I’m not terribly offended and it’s not the worst thing to ever happen to me. It’s just an odd default term considering the people working the counter usually just announce the order to the crowed in order to connect people with food. There’s no reason not to just announce “Bulgogi Burger set,” or whatever, unless the person assumed I wouldn’t understand the announcement. A good posibility, in spite of me having ordered in Korean.

…then I realize that it would indeed make sense to identify a foreign customer if the person taking his or her order felt that they’d be unlikely to understand their announcement. But I disagree with Brian’s first last line though (why assume that someone who can order in Korean couldn’t also understand that it’s arrived?), and which is just the sort of thing which so aggravates me about speaking Korean in this country like I explained. Hence the “외국인” was actually unnecessary then, but rather more because of the Lotteria worker’s preconceptions of non-Asian foreigners’ Korean ability (they would never do the same to a Japanese person) than anything inherent to the Korean language.

Either way, it’s good to remember that whenever one is highlighted like this, then it could be for any number of reasons, and 99% of the time the people responsible do not mean to and are probably completely unaware that they may be causing offense. Moreover, as Brian’s discussions here and here of decades-old journal articles on this subject attest to (see this one at Gypsy Scholar also), this is something one just has to get used to.

Update 2: See The View From Taiwan for a similar issue with terms there.

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

31 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion (Updated)

  1. One part of me wants to discuss this topic, but the other part of me just screams with exasperation.

    Who cares? If you live in East Asia, be it Japan, China, Korea, or Taiwan, then you encounter this daily. You’re even complicit with these racial distinctions every time you speak the language of your host country. It’s a fact of life; either keep it on the roster of repetitive expat topics to moan about or accept it as a defining feature of the culture you have chosen to make your home abroad in and learn to adapt.

    I always remember the horror with which my teacher gazed at my paper when she saw that I’d committed the HEINOUS crime of using 我国 (wo3guo2; wagakuni; urigook(? not a korean speaker)) to refer to a country other than the Middle Kingdom. By the time, a few years later, that I was introduced by a Taiwanese friend to an acquaintance of his as the 外国人 (wai4guo2ren2; gaikokujin; waegookin)sat at the table, I no longer cared. We were in the UK, and a small part of me wanted to bite back “who’s the 外国人 here?” but I knew that they wouldn’t refer to me any other way, so I just ignored it and got on with it.

    These cultures have a sub-conscious fear of multi-culturalism, seeing it as a harbinger of chaos that will destroy their pure, unique societies. It’s ironic that such sharply defined “exclusionist” tendencies about national identity is one of the most concrete things that the countries of East Asia actually share between each other.

    I’d be interested to find out more about how people within East Asia refer to each other. Would an ethnic Chinese so readily refer to an ethnic Korean as 外国人? What happens when the other has assimilated into the host country’s culture and speaks the language fluently? I’m sure the zainichi Koreans in Japan would be cited as examples of continued exclusionist thinking on the part of the host society, but what about other scenarios? I’d be interested in a study, for instance, about self-referential language among ethnic Koreans born in China.

    To return to the expat-oriented viewpoint, I just tire of this subject because I feel it’s too easy to go around in circles, like banging your head against a brick wall. The ideas about what are the foundations of a modern, liberal society simply don’t connect between East and West. Apologies for a second gross generalization.


    1. Well thanks for your comment I guess, but although you don’t accuse me of it directly, I still think it’s a little unfair (and strange) to raise the issue of expats’ naval-gazing in this particular post, especially when I explicitly state that I don’t want to simply rehash what other expats bloggers have already discussed of the subject. Moreover, while expats might naturally focus on how things like this affect them, I think it’s pretty clear that this issue is something that strikes at the very heart of Koreans’ views of nationality, ethnicity, and citizenship, and so all the more informed and vibrant the discussion on it the better I say.


    2. I agree with James, I don’t see any reason not to discuss this topic. I think there’s a difference between expats complaining about being called a oegugin and people collectively discussing the origins of its heavy usage in a language, comparing it with other languages and cultures and discussing wider implications/meanings.

      That said, “It’s ironic that such sharply defined “exclusionist” tendencies about national identity is one of the most concrete things that the countries of East Asia actually share between each other” – is a very interesting comment.

      “I’d be interested in a study, for instance, about self-referential language among ethnic Koreans born in China.”

      I don’t have a study to share with you, but I know the answer nevertheless. The ethnic Koreans in China refer to themselves as Chosonjok (sorry, this isn’t my computer and I don’t know how to write characters on it. In Korean it’s 조선족). Choson was the Korean name for Korea before division and is the current Korean name for North Korea (used in North Korea). The final character means family or collective group of people. It’s also found in the word for family, kajok, and the word minjok, which can variously mean nation, people, ethnic group etc. Essentially, then, ethnic Korean Chinese are referring to themselves as Koreans, but not using the word that would identify them as south Koreans. For obvious reasons they are more closely tied to the North Koreans anyway, and so perhaps this is why they still use the word Choson, although I think an actual North Korean would more likely call themself a Chosonin, meaning Choson person. It’s also worth noting that there have been ethnic Koreans living and being born in China since well before the division of Korea, and so the term chosonjok actually dates back to when the entire Korean peninsula was a country called Choson.

      It’s one of those things where it helps to have a good feel for the Korean language to properly understand the implications of the term, however. It seems to emphasize a difference between Korean Koreans and ethnic Korean Chinese, whilst also maintaining that they are, in fact, Korean. It’s almost like they’ve named themselves in such a way that it makes them seem like a completely separate group of people – the use of the character jok.


  2. This is something that has interested me since I first arrived in Korea more than two years ago. I was a little offended at first because I would never refer openly to someone as a foreigner back in the UK. Yes, they are a foreigner… but it’s impolite to cast someone as different. It creates an unnecessary division.

    It still does bother me. I know I am a foreigner and no matter how well I learn the language that is what I’ll be… but is it really necessary to point and shout or whisper? I can understand little kids doing it, but when their parents say nothing, or, worse, do the same… that annoys me.

    That receipt also pisses me off. Totally unnecessary. I understand that it’s very important for some reason to separate foreigners and put us in some special place (for whatever reason) but this seems a little ludicrous.

    But I’m not ignorant to the fact that this isn’t a purely Korean trait. Perhaps Koreans are worse than others (I’ve certainly never witnessed anything as extreme as this) but it’s a worldwide thing. Whether it’s race or sexuality or religion or whatever, people love creating “us” and “them” and using it for their own means. I think it’s a purely human trait that we should be more cautious about.


    1. I hear you and understand, but just like many anecdotes in Seamus’s post demonstrate, I’d say 99+% of the time it’s both something Koreans have never really thought about, and certainly don’t intend (or realize they’re causing) any offense.

      Like I say in the post though, I’d wager that the receipt thing is actually for VAT or something and definitely not something worthy of getting annoyed about, especially as the waegookin concerned was actually a Korean-American.


  3. I’ve noticed the restaurants in places like Gangnam tend to do the ‘내국인, 외국인’ thing on their receipts. But several times I have been out with a Korean, despite that I paid and am clearly a foreigner it was put down as 내국인: 2명 – However I am willing to bet that it was due to lazyness rather than the fact that I spoke in Korean.


    1. Once I looked at the prices on the receipt then I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that! But I wonder if anyone has ever noticed it in humbler surroundings? (It’s never happened to me!)


  4. Thanks for the link James – this is a very interesting topic. I once asked my professor at what point Koreans started referring to Korea as “urinara” as opposed to using its name. It’s a term that’s been around a long time, and as a previous commentator noted, an equivalent is also used in Chinese and Japanese, but that’s not to say that it has always been more common to use it than the actual name of the country. My professor’s feeling was that it only became so popular during the colonial period, and before that “Choson” would have been more common.

    I also think it’s interesting that nowadays Koreans are taking to using the word “코리아” far more often as well. Of course, they’re using English words more and more frequently in general, but still this is another word that is not the Korean word for Korea that is coming into increasingly popular usage to refer to Korea by Koreans.

    I say this in slightly bad taste, but if you want to confuddle a Korean, ask them if they use “urinara” instead of “han’guk” because they’re ashamed of their country’s name. This is even more likely to work if you don’t speak very good Korean, so they have to answer in English because it’s incredibly difficult to explain. Definitely, very bad taste.

    I find it interesting that Alison Tokita discussed the use of “national language” and so on in Japanese to refer to Japanese, as I also discuss the same phenomenon a lot in my post that you linked to – thanks for that, by the way! :) As I recall, I also asked in that post if it was the same in Japanese and Chinese as I’m not so hot in those languages – and now I have my answer! To me, this is even more nationalistic/exclusionist/whatever than “oegugin.” It’s also necessary to understand why “national language” is used instead of “Korean” in Korea to refer to the Korean language before one can properly understand the term “oegugin.” But like I said, I discuss it in quite a lot of detail in my post you linked to, so I won’t repeat myself here! But still, it’s interesting to me now to know for sure that in Japanese and Chinese as well as Korean the same grammatical construct is used as a function of each country’s nationalism.


    1. And just before I forget – the Korean word “외국인” definitely does not mean “foreigner.” See my post as linked to by James for a discussion of that though to avoid repetition here!


      1. Could have sworn I said that, but what the hell: have since heavily edited the post a lot to make that a lot clearer!

        Too brain-dead to reply to your other comments this evening sorry, but…zzz…thanks for them….zzz….z.zz.zz….


  5. Keeping track may seem obviously racist orprejudiced, but it may be done to keep track for various purposes (statistical reasons maybe?). Or given the cultural environment, where foreigners are not ‘Korean’ (even though when they have become part of the community, still foreigners becoming ‘Korean’ by nationality is rare, compared to other countries), it is understandable why people are ‘awkward’ to foreigners and try to separate them.

    But being prejudiced to foreigners is not only a Korean phenomenon. It’s common in Europe as well. If you look like an Asian, they never assume that you are part of their community/nation but just treat you as ‘oh you’re from China/Asia’. I thought this was worse, compared to Korea, given that immigration is very common in European countries.
    Also, I think ‘uri’ is an Asian thing. In Chinese you say ‘our family (我們的 women de~)’ instead of ‘my family’.


    1. I also thought it might have been for statistical reasons – as in the fancy Kangnam restaurants considering it a measure of their success if they get many foreign customers. In my personal experience, however, I’m not even sure I’ve ever been in a Korean restaurant where they’ve given me a bill/receipt!

      “It’s common in Europe as well.” – Europe’s a very big place. That’s perhaps one generalisation too far. I also don’t think it’s particularly accurate. It really does depend where you are, and whether or not you look/act like a foreigner (in ways other than ethnicity). For example, the “foreigner” on the picture of the receipt was an ethnic Korean, and yet the restaurant marked her out as a foreigner. Behaviour, our clothes, way of speaking etc etc can all point us out as being from somewhere else.

      I, for example, live in a part of Europe where people would automatically consider anyone of any race to be part of the local community unless they do something to indicate otherwise. I admit, the whole of Europe isn’t like that, but still, the point remains that Europe is too big and too diverse to make such sweeping generalisations.

      Finally, I think some of the examples James used in his post indicate that “uri” is not, in fact, a Korean or even an East Asian thing. He provides examples as diverse as Russia, Geordies in England and Mongolia.


  6. Holy six degrees of separation Batman.
    I checked my Facebook before coming here and saw thst a former crosscultural communications professor that I studied with at Sydney Uni. (she is now at Macquarie) linked to this post. She called it fascinating and I’d agree with her!

    She runs an interesting blog called, “Language on the Move.” It’s a very interesting blog that deals a lot with how language(s) and migration intersect. I’m sure that many of the Grand Narrative readers would enjoy it. http://www.languageonthemove.com/


  7. Long time reader, very rare commenter – but in this case there’s some typing to be done.

    On one level, I suppose the subject is seemingly academic in nature – it doesn’t exactly determine my lifestyle, job, or anything else, and if ignored it wouldn’t affect my life in any substantial way. On another level, however, I could decide to be uber-sensitive about being called a way-guk-in, and feel insulted anytime someone uttered those three syllables within my earshot.

    Regarding the OP’s picture: it’s probably a rare system that’ll ask how many Koreans vs. foreigners – certainly not the type of system you’ll see at anything other than a high-end restaurant. Like everything else on the receipt the numbers could be counted and analyzed – more foreigners visit on Thursdays! – but the net effect seems to be the reminder that there are two classes of people. Only two classes of people. You’re part of us or you’re not part of us – hard to get more black and white than that.


  8. There isn’t time or space to get into all the assumptions that are being made here: just one, saying that one speaks “English” instead of “our language” makes one less ethnocentric and more aware of others’ positions in the world. Proving that would require one heck of a complicated and extremely fine-tuned study.

    Japanese uses “uchi”, more so in the Kansai area, to refer to both personal things and thoughts and family or group-possessed things and thoughts. Since beginning to study Korean, I have often been struck by the similarities in notions and functions as well as the similarities in sounds: “uchi” is not very far from Korean “uri”, and is used in very similar ways. I, non-native Japanese speaker, used it myself today when speaking to another faculty member about the university where we work: “Uchi no daigaku no ba-ai wa…” (In the case of our university…” As I reflect, I realize that I was using this term to draw a circle that included the other faculty member and me while contrasting to other universities. Granted, being left outside the circle that is drawn by the use of “uri” can get really tiresome on a personal level, but it is not a good idea to jump to the linguisitic or sociological conclusion that Western languages that don’t use language in quite the same way are therefore more advanced and liberal.

    I would have asked at the restaurant why there was a distinction made between “negookin” (inside person) and “wegookin” (outside person). In similar situations in Japan I have persisted in the most puzzled and polite manner I can summon up until I either get an answer or think that my pestering them will lead to a change in the near future – but sometimes I have been totally off base and have to remind myself not to get too paranoid.


  9. One more comment: when I arrived in Japan over thirty years ago, the phrase “wareware Nihonjin” (we Japanese) was quite common – and quite annoying. However, I cannot remember anyone under the age of 50 using the phrase within the past 10 years. I heard one man in his 70’s use it recently and actually had quite a “natsukashii” feeling, a feeling of nostalgia – since I know that I won’t be hearing it often. So societial attitudes and patterns of speech do change – sometimes for the better.


  10. I ate in a very similar restaurant in Cheongdam with my older Korean businessman boyfriend and we noticed the bill. He asked them about it and they said they keep track of foreigners so that they can adjust their menu accordingly- see which dishes are popular among non-Koreans, have enough English menus, etc. He laughed at the notion that it would have been anything else.


  11. I would like to say wow that’s so bad and all. Unfortunately for me I can’t and not be a made out to be a hypocrite. I’m Dutch and I’m told the Netherlands is a country known for it’s tolerance. But something of interest is that Dutch people make the same distinction as Koreans and the other peoples mentioned do. In Dutch someone who is Dutch is called an “autochtoon” and someone from abroad a “allochtoon”. There is even a English language wikipedia article about it which explains it better than I can; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allochtoon

    Maybe it will add something to the discussion. I’m not really aware of other languages in the west that also make the distinction.


  12. Westerns usually use a form of “we”/”our” in a similar way although it’s usually to show alliance to a certain sporting team, city, or state. As a Canadian/Nigerian living in the US (so not obvious foreign to Americans) I became really aware of this during the world cup. When i ever talked about the Nigerian team I would might say something like “We’re not doing to well” and my friends would have to explain to stranger that the “we” I was revering to was not their collective “we.” Not as extreme as the Koreans but there is still a language of exclusion in the West.


  13. Being singled out as different isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I rarely see this point made in this discussion, although my experience is primarily in regards to the word in Japanese.

    Korean society tends to stress status – Rich people, SKY graduates, and public servants. Being addressed as different from the majority doesn’t imply negative discrimination in itself. Sometimes the distinction is a result of a perception of “higher” status that puts them outside of the circle of the “normal masses”. Why should foreigners be exempt from this same social stratification? (I’m not insinuating the foreigners deserve this elevated status) The problem isn’t one between Koreans and foreigners, but one of an “us and them” mentality, and Koreans are well aware of it. Look at all of the talk of the problems with regionalism – the “us and them” distinction exists within the native population as well. Foreigners are just another ring in the circle of social identity.

    I’ve talked a little bit about this on threads all over the Asian blogosphere, for example here.


  14. James, interesting post…especially considering that the “we” is not limited to Korean.

    As others have written here, the constant distinction between “Korean” and “foreigner” does irk me sometimes…sometimes I’ll challenge this if the situation is right and I feel that the listeners will be receptive to it.

    However, sometimes in Korean conversation I do use “waegook” to talk about immigrants in America. I also use “uri nara, “uri jib,” etc. to talk about my own country and family. Actually a Korean friend taught me to do the latter…she said that to Koreans it sounded strange to use the singular pronoun. When I use these expressions in that context, no Korean I’ve spoken (so far) to bats an eye.

    So maybe, as has also been suggested in the comments, habit is involved as much as nationalism or a willful intent to always make that distinction.

    By the way, the photo of the receipt made me laugh out loud before even reading your post.


  15. I’d like to point out that the 우리 concept, while not as common, is DEFINITELY used quite a bit in Britain and especially England. I can think of several examples where ‘our’ or ‘we’ come into a commonly spoken sentence. I’ve also never met a British person say ‘my country’, but maybe I don’t get out enough…


  16. hey james, good read mate … i havent had much time to keep up with your blog during the travels, but this one caught my attention.

    personally, i have no problem with being identified as a 외국인. i understand that it’s actually somewhat derogatory in its original context, but has since become a simple generalisation. i do get annoyed when koreans say ‘miguk’, but it happens less and less these days (i happened a lot when i first came to korea).

    i think it’s human habit to make the fastest obvious generalisation about people. not in a bad way, but when talking about customers, the fastest way to identify them is the most efficient – the guy with the blue shirt, the black woman, the tall man, or in korea, the foreigner (which is usually enough, since we are a minority group). we all do it in all cultures.

    regarding companies identifying foreigners on their receipts, i believe that it’s for marketing statistics. the foreign community in korea is growing rapidly and smart companies want to know what percentage of their customers are non-koreans. such racial profiling is just as common in our home countries too.

    we forget that 40 years ago (just one generation) korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. whilst economic success has come quickly, cultural change always takes longer to catch up.

    sure, korea has a its problems (show me a country which doesn’t have problems!!) but this one is so minor that, while it might make for an interesting discussion, is not really all that important. as long as koreans use the word 외국인 without it being derogatory, then i have no problem.


  17. How can they really keep track of who is a foreigner and who isn’t? Last time I checked, over 90% of the foreigners in Korea are of Asian origin and a vast majority of them could easily pass as a Korean if they didn’t say anything. This is kind of like the ‘Airport communication’ you see at Incheon. If you are Korean looking, they speak to you in Korean. If you are foreign looking, they speak to you in English. Granted, this is VERY helpful if you can’t speak Korean and not much of a problem for Asians who get mistaken for *being* Korean, but really, how many airports have you been to where they switch languages like a light switch just because you look different?


    1. Not sure if your first question is rhetorical or not sorry, but either way it would be easy enough to politely ask customers they suspect of being non-Korean when they pay their bill, and I don’t think most people would mind at all being asked once they knew the reason. But like I said, language difficulties would usually preclude that, and it would also make little sense for a restaurant which didn’t already have many foreign customer anyway.


  18. Thanks for the links, James. Here’s the post about the receipt, in case anyone wants to comment there: http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com/2008/04/i-hate-when-they-do-that.html

    I’ll just clarify that by “a good possibility” I meant the person behind the counter may have assumed that I wouldn’t/couldn’t understand Korean, not that it was “a good possibility” that I wouldn’t/couldn’t.

    I’m with you on how frustrating and annoying it can be trying to get Koreans to speak to you in Korean, rather than reverting to pantomime or broken, babytalk “English.” Because I was living in Korea and interested in learning Korean, I made it a point to speak in Korean all the time when in restaurants, shops, or out in public. The worst case of Koreans trying to force “English” on me was, believe it or not, in a free Korean class by a local office of education. The teachers—who helped me realize how bad “unqualified teachers can be, and who were ironically local Korean English teachers—were doing the class because, they said, they wanted to meet foreigners. After a few classes of that, and of having to spend my time indulging “teachers” in their free English practice, I learned it would be more productive to read books on my own.

    I will add that I got a lot more Korean practice, and a lot more salespeople and Koreans interested in communicating with me, when I was alone. When I was with my Japanese fiance—who looks Korean, even to Koreans—nearly every Korean we encountered would speak exclusively to her and employ the triangle method of communication: I speak Korean to them, they reply in Korean to my fiancee (who has worse Korean than me), she says the reply in Korean to me, I speak to them again in Korean, they reply to my fiancee in Korean, she tells me in Korean, . . . and so on.


    1. And thanks for the photo in turn, and sorry I linked to your Facebook page rather than the post itself?

      And the clarification also, although it would still be strange for the server to assume that you couldn’t understand Korean after you just spoke it to him or her, and was probably written just out of habit really.

      I’m a bit drunk right now, so I’ll wisely refrain from commenting further, other than to say that I too have had similar problems as a government-run free “Korean” class. But also that in Koreans’ defense, that the triangle phenomenon you describe is hardly confined to Korea, although I’m sure you already knew that…hic…xz. z..hic…


  19. Another thing that will make you scream with frustration is the kid from Idol Group BEAST appearing in blackface on MBC. If that wasn’t entertaining enough, he spits watermelon seeds. I am only half Korean but I still want to hollar out: WTF Motherland!!!! http://seoulbeats.com/2010/07/color-me-not-surprised/

    I seem to recall that Rain is the manager/mentor of this BEAST group. Maybe that video will get him another invite onto the Colbert show. Sorry for kidding. I can’t decide whether to pity these fools or throw up in my soju.


    1. Thanks for passing that on, albeit one of many to do so(!), but I’m going to have to demur commenting on or writing about it sorry: I just don’t know enough about the history of representations of black people in Korean popular culture to do so, let alone the history of blackface in the US and so on. But see here for an earlier Korean example if you haven’t already, and Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician especially has many illuminating posts on the subject: see here, here, and here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s